For Some National Guard Members, Delivering the COVID-19 Vaccine Is Personal

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A Texas National Guard medic at a mobile COVID-19 vaccination event in Texas.
Texas National Guard medics join first responders from DeWitt County, Texas A&M AgriLife and the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) at a mobile vaccination event, Jan.29, 2021, in Cuero, Texas. (Bob Seyller/Texas Military Department)

Texas Army National Guard Spc. Matthew Bernal has spent nearly a year helping his fellow Texans survive COVID-19, but the combat medic isn't worn down yet.

The mission is personal for him.

"I personally lost my grandpa last year to COVID-19, and I have talked to a lot of other soldiers who also have experienced loss in their family," Bernal told reporters Thursday during a Zoom roundtable. "A lot of the counties that we have gone to, the majority of the populations have been the elderly, and I can say with great certainty that they have been extremely grateful to have the opportunity to receive the vaccine.

"It gives them a lot of hope, and I am glad that we can provide that," he added.

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Currently, more than 25,000 Guard members in 32 states are on the front lines of the pandemic mission to distribute vaccines to the civilian population.

Army Col. Peter Coldwell, the Texas Military Department's state surgeon, told reporters that, in some ways, the pandemic mission has a lot more unknowns to face than the two combat missions he served in during his 40 years in the Army.

"When you go to combat, it's pretty well defined," Coldwell said. "I began this mission in late March with no knowledge of what the pandemic was going to put out, and I can say that I have been incredibly impressed with our flexibility and our initiative and our ingenuity in responding to this.

"And really, with the punches that COVID has given us, everybody has done an amazing job," he said.

West Virginia Guard Army Maj. Caroline Muriama said the pandemic support mission "is very different from being deployed overseas, where you at least have one thing to focus on, which is your mission."

"We have noticed that it has been very challenging being on the home front ... so there is always a fine balance for us as leaders to balance that mission aspect and know that, when those soldiers go home at the end of the day, they still have their lives and their families to take care of," said Muriama, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Battalion executive officer for the Army Interagency Training Education Center.

The COVID-19 response has had a strong Guard presence, but active-duty troops are still playing a role in the effort. U.S. Army North announced Wednesday that 222 soldiers from Fort Carson, Colorado, would deploy to Los Angeles at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a new release.

The team of vaccinators, registered nurses and other medical personnel will support the state-run, federally supported COVID-19 vaccination center there, according to the release.

Army Lt. Col. Jim Adkins, deputy commander of administration at the West Virginia Guard's Medical Detachment, said he is deeply proud to have played a role in what will surely be a uniquely historic effort.

"It's been a very humbling experience to be able to help our citizens with this once-in-a-lifetime challenge that we have been faced with," Adkins said.

Senior Airman Joseph Holloway, with the West Virginia Guard, who has also been in the pandemic response mission for nearly a year, said he started off working the pre-screening effort and recently began supporting the vaccine effort.

"I've been boots on the ground since March," Holloway said. "It's been really busy."

Bernal agreed with his fellow Guard member.

"It's been pretty busy, but nothing we are not used to," he said. "I really enjoy being able to help other Texans, so there is no other place I would rather be."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: National Guard Now Helping with COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in 26 States

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